Bern: Shift to neutral

By Graham Reid

Switzerland's laid-back capital proves the ideal place for flustered Euro-tourists to get their breath back, writes Graham Reid.

Bern, the capital of efficient Switzerland and a Unesco World Heritage Site, is an unexpected delight that blends old-world charm with every modern comfort. Photo / Thinkstock
Bern, the capital of efficient Switzerland and a Unesco World Heritage Site, is an unexpected delight that blends old-world charm with every modern comfort. Photo / Thinkstock

The day dawns bright and clear as the train glides out of Gare de Lyon, coasts gently through tower-block suburbs and past the indecipherable tagging which seems generic to railway sidings everywhere.

Within a few minutes the speed increases and the factories and warehouses give way to farmland.

We are travelling south towards Italy, but before then have decided to break our journey in Bern, Switzerland, just five hours away and for many the ideal resting place between the busy boulevards of Paris and the bustle of Venice, Milan or Rome.

Bern, the capital of efficient Switzerland and a Unesco World Heritage Site, is an unexpected delight.

The Old City - medieval in character, but contemporary with upmarket shops, bars and restaurants - radiates easy charm and a walking pace very soon becomes a leisurely amble.

The buildings are attractive and historic. Even the pissoir near the famous clock tower has something to recommend it: I think the sign inside tells me this was the first such patented outdoor lavatory ("urinoir"), but that gentlemen should please adjust themselves before leaving.

Bern is a city full of such small surprises, and a surprising number of museums. There is one to the artist Paul Klee who was born nearby (the city has a wonderful walking tour of Klee signposts, with his work showing his take on the cityscapes); a museum of fine arts; one celebrating the textile industry; a natural history museum; one dedicated to communication; and, inevitably in a city where you can see snow-capped peaks in many directions, the Swiss Alpine Museum.

Chief among these, however, is the large area in the main museum dedicated to the fascinating life of the eccentric Albert Einstein, who apparently teased his hair into that unruly style whenever a camera was near. The Einstein exhibition was mounted in 2005 to celebrate 50 years since his death but was so successful it has been given a permanent place in the museum.

It is an extraordinarily detailed account of Einstein's life through his old school reports, letters, photographs, home reconstructions and, of course, explanations of his famous theories - the e=mc2, one of which he discovered while living in Bern.

For 10 minutes I was convinced I understood his Theory of Relativity (something to do with how a ball bounces, if I was following the animated film properly), but needless to say I forgot by the time I got to the restaurant beside the Aare, the rapidly flowing river which curves around three sides of the Old Town.

The Schwellenmatteli restaurant-bar is a must-do. Located beside a man-made watercourse along the river, it is in a dramatic location. People don't so much swim here as just jump in, float along on the current for a while, then climb out at the next landing. It looked far too rapid for me, and the beer was delicious.

The charms of the old town are what draw people here, however: the trams which roll past; the broad streets and squares; the shops set back under arcades to protect you from the cold or heat (it can be more than 30C in summer, hardly the crisp alpine climate you might expect); and the old cellars beneath many shops that have been converted into wine bars and upmarket boutiques. Arched bridges over the Aare; bicycles and greenery; an efficient bus and tram service; old mosaics and murals; houses built flush against the riverbank with quaint tiled roofs; and everywhere images of bears _ the town's symbol and namesake.

The architectural standout among many is the clock tower, parts of which date back to the 13th century. It is also the world's oldest public astronomical clock. You need to be there when it chimes the hour and a parade of characters (animals, a fool and a bear, of course) emerge and chase each other around.

The Altes Tramdepot, a large bar-cum-restaurant, is located, as the name says, in the old tram depot high on a riverbank across the Nydeggbrucke (bridge). Dinner here, looking back over the old city and the Aare, is a delight, and it brews its own excellent beers on the premises. There was a famous bear enclosure right outside, but the last bear died earlier this year and the enclosure is now being made more pleasant for its incoming inhabitants.

Bern isn't all pleasant, however - there are some truly terrifying sights: the depiction of the damned in The Last Judgement above the entrance of the Gothic cathedral (The Munster of Bern) is chilling and some of the surrounding characters look quite mad.

But the most creepy thing in the city is in Kornhausplatz, the plaza near the old corn-storage building. Beside sophisticated restaurants where families eat lunch beneath large umbrellas is a pretty fountain, until you look up.

Because there, on the top of the column, is a grotesque ogre eating a naked child, and in a bag by his side he has even more potential victims who are wailing and crying. The Kindlifresserbrunnen (Child-Eating Fountain, of course) gives Goya's terrifying painting Saturn Devouring His Son a run for its money in the scary stakes.

This is unexpected in benign little Bern, but Bern is full of little surprises, all of them much more enjoyable than the peculiar but memorable Kindlifresserbrunnen, I have to say.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific has daily flights from Auckland to London, via Hong Kong, with frequent connections on oneworld partner British Airways to Zurich or Basel, Switzerland.

Graham Reid travelled to Britain with assistance from Cathay Pacific Airways and through Europe courtesy of Rail Plus New Zealand.

- Herald on Sunday

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